Rakes Report #162: Bells will be ringing the sad, sad news (The ACC Championship Game Review)

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~optional musical accompaniment~

1) As a connoisseur of college football losses broadly and Notre Dame defeats specifically, that one was certainly Not A Great Time but also more Some Early Mistakes Snowball versus This Never Had A Chance. It was 3-0 when there were a couple of uninspired goal-to-go play calls and then a missed field goal. It was only 7-3 with Notre Dame still moving the ball well in the second quarter when Ian Book and Avery Davis failed to convert on a fourth down pass. If you want a chance at beating a supremely talented team led by the best NFL quarterback prospect in years, you have to be clean (and sack him when you get near him when the game is still in the balance). Notre Dame wasn’t anywhere close to the level they needed to be and it resulted in an embarrassing loss that knocked them down into prime position for another lopsided score. Not ideal.

2) The Fighting Irish are one of the best programs in the nation at identifying and developing talent then deploying it in schematically advantageous ways. We see this both in the number of games the Irish win (very many) and the steady line of guys they send to the NFL to succeed. Unfortunately, a few programs exist that also are just as good if not better at development and deployment but also bring in more highly rated classes of recruits as their starting point. I should stress this is not just a Notre Dame problem: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia soak in a disproportionate amount of elite prospects versus nearly everyone else outside of the bayou. How you feel about this gap in raw talent on the roster probably depends on how you distribute blame between the constant of Column A (the difficulties in recruiting to a private Catholic school that at least pretends to care about academics in the tundra of northern Indiana) versus the potential variability of Column B (strategic mistakes/enthusiasm/effort/etc from coaching staff that could conceivably change). It’s certainly both, but the blend is important.

There are ways to bridge that gap, mainly by adding in a dynamic passing attack, with the ideal example being last year’s LSU team. Ian Book and this Notre Dame offense evolved into a very productive unit over the course of this season but that was in spite of being short on raw, veteran skill talent, whether that’s evaluated by looking at recruiting rankings on the front end or what draft position will likely be on the back end. Prospects are prospects and there are no guarantees just because of star rating but with the most recently signed classes there is the potential for a higher ceiling, provided line play continues as it has for the last decade, which seems like not a huge ask considering the talent available there. Or, hey, I guess it’s possible things will get worse? We’ll find out in the coming seasons.

I understand it’s not fun to have any kinds of discussions like this coming off such a giant missed opportunity, but this comes back to a conversation we’ve had frequently the last couple years: Notre Dame is like the sixth-ish best team in college football, leagues better than more than one hundred other FBS programs but a clear level below a few* in a way that makes this whole exercise seem pointless at times. It is a lot of fun most of the time and really, really sucks once or twice a year. However, only five programs have made the playoff more than once, and Notre Dame is one of them, joining Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. They were a deserving participant both times after putting together great seasons and I’m not going to apologize because other teams couldn’t earn the spot.**

* Consider this: We are heading into the seventh College Football Playoff and only two teams have won a game in multiple years: Alabama and Clemson, who have won 12 of the last 15 playoff games and are favored to make it 15 of 18. I feel deeply in my bones the frustration of hitting our head on the ceiling like this but for self-care I try to remind myself this is less specifically a Notre Dame Problem and more a The Rest of College Football Problem. I am not saying this explanation makes me feel better, but in theory it could so I’ll keep repeating it to myself.

** If you wanted to give Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina the fourth spot on the basis of “They went undefeated over a full enough schedule with some nice wins and whatever team is paired against Alabama is going to be a huge underdog anyway so give it to a team who didn’t just get blown out by one of the powers” I would have been fine with that. But Texas A&M? It’s close, but the Irish have a slightly better resume and are ahead in a vast majority of advanced ratings. I find it rich that “Notre Dame only got the spot because of their name” is a talking point when a team that played six games and counts close affairs with Indiana and Northwestern as its best wins was handed the third seed.

3) I’m sorry this is light on specifics but I don’t have any desire to rewatch any of that and I can’t imagine you have much interest in diving too deep into what went wrong. Both Rees and Lea had tough days, but again, they’re going against perhaps the best coordinator duo in the country with a talent disadvantage so there is no room for error. I would not have waited so long to get Chris Tyree a touch, and if Braden Lenzy was healthy it would have made sense to at least use him as a decoy, but it was going to be tough sledding regardless. If they were able to convert touchdowns early and play from ahead for a while longer, maybe this breaks different, but they didn’t so it didn’t.

4) Regarding the playoff, odds are it’s going to be ugly for the Irish against an Alabama team that has been leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of college football this season per whichever advanced metric you would like to use. That said, I’d prefer to not have to hear about how a bad loss is going to doom the Irish forever in the eyes of the committee. Please look at the history of the semifinals: They are almost always blowouts, with a few exceptions. If you want to feel better, the Oklahoma Sooners are 0-4 all-time in the semis, lost by 35 to LSU last season and just got ranked sixth even though they have two losses. Somebody has to fill these spots against the Tide and Tigers and Buckeyes and maybe there’s a slim chance this will matter on the margins but Notre Dame going forward will be in the same position they’ve always been in: In at 12-0, out at 10-2, 11-1 dependent on a lot of stuff. And hey, there’s no rule that says Notre Dame will certainly lose or get blown out, although I admit it’s tough to have much hope against a potential trio of Heisman finalists and Nick Saban’s defense.

(Also peeking ahead a bit, the Irish play both Clemson and Ohio State in the 2022 and 2023 seasons, so there won’t be any confusion about how those vintages line up to the best of the sport come final rankings.)

5) The biggest non-game news of last week was the announcement that Clark Lea had been hired as the head coach at Vanderbilt. There is no short-term benefit of this for Irish fans, as Lea is by every account an incredible developer of talent and schematic master but I feel like we’ve all handled this pretty well (being very sad, but understanding that a guy going back to his hometown to coach his alma mater is a thing that will happen). It seems like promises were made about putting some effort into the football program and job security is pretty solid (Derek Mason got seven seasons and topped out at 6-7) so it’ll be exciting to see what Lea can do at a school that’s been solid at basketball and exceptional at baseball over the years, has great academics and offers the various perks of Nashville.

If he does good work, he’ll be a prime candidate to replace Kelly down the line and if he falls short then I am sure head coach Tommy Rees will have no qualms about bringing him back to his old post in South Bend. Congrats to Lea and best of luck to him – I am already disgusted with myself at how often I’ll be toggling over to Vanderbilt football games in the coming seasons.

6) It really is a shame this game went down the way it did because this was a great football team for three months under the most strenuous conditions. 10-0, with eight of those being double-digit wins, while dealing with a dang pandemic. (If you’re wondering how miserable this season was for players, please take a look at how many teams are saying “Thanks, but no thanks” to bowl bids just so they can end things.) The Rees/Book combo has been very good all year but beating Brent Venables a second time was going to be tough and they couldn’t come through. The defense has been equally good, but holding down a guy who’s now 34-1 in his collegiate career is a big ask and they fell short.*  The Irish had to coach and play perfect to have a chance, they didn’t, and now we get to spend the offseason hearing how a program that’s won 33 of its last 37 games isn’t actually good, barring a miracle at Jerry World. But hey, you know the rules: It’s a very dumb sport, and it’s our fault for caring about it. 

* Narratively, it was also just too funny to imagine Notre Dame joining a conference for one year, winning it and jetting. Probably not as big as either the X’s and O’s or Jimmy and Joes factor, but it was out there in the ether. This felt similar to last year’s Michigan game, in that the college football gods knew how obnoxious we were all set to be with a victory and denied it for the sake of balance.

The past few years I spent conference championship weekend in Vegas and it was quite depressing all last week as it really settled in upon the usual attendees that we would have to skip the tradition for a year. Missing the trip was a minor drop in the bucket of this rotten, miserable year that has brought so much death and immiseration but I can’t imagine what muddling through would have been like if we didn’t have this Irish team winning week in and week out all autumn, even if we couldn’t pack into bars and living rooms and stadiums to watch games. I join you in being disappointed about how Saturday went and I know there’s the feeling of “Ah, why even bother if this is always going to happen in the same way” but we got months of fun texts and emails and phone calls and DMs with people we care about. Even a community whose most sacred ritual is spending a few Saturdays every year questioning why you even care about the reason the communal bonds exists is very valuable and absolutely worth protecting in these times.

We’ll see how the game against Alabama goes and then take some time to reflect on this team, but 2021 is going to be a really interesting and weird (hopefully in a good way) season for the Irish. Ian Book and Clark Lea have been involved with a whole lot of winning the last three years and now they’re both gone, along with plenty of linemen on both sides who’ve helped drive the train. Should the schedule hold as it is currently set, it’ll be delightfully random (Labor Day night in Tallahassee, home games with Cincinnati and Purdue, Kedon Slovis and Sam Howell back-to-back, two trips to Virginia, Wisconsin in Chicago) but not the worst slate for a team that will either be rebuilding (or, ideally, reloading). This senior class did so much (43-7 over four years with a single home loss!) and now it’s time to see how much of that was them specifically and how much is a sturdy program of which they were a part, all while dealing with a likely uptick of transfers both in and out.

Thank you all for reading. I know it doesn’t feel like a celebratory time with Saturday’s defeat still lingering and the Crimson Tide just over the horizon, but the Irish had seasons absolutely worthy of the playoffs two of the last three years, with an 11-2 campaign thrown in for good measure. I know it’s not the top of the mountain and we must continue to climb but we can allow ourselves a moment to note that the view is still pretty nice.

Also, before we go: I wanted to thank everyone who donated to and/or shared Christmas Giving this year. You all have raised more than $10,000 for the Center for the Homeless in South Bend over the last couple weeks and the generosity is just staggering.

I know this is going to be a somber Christmas for many spent apart from loved ones, but I hope you all can still find some joy from the celebration. Please take care of yourselves and each other and hey I guess Go Irish, Beat Bama.

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